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On ‘1600 Penn,’ not-so-prodigal son returns to the White House

1600 Penn - SeasPilot

1600 Penn - Season Pilot

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‘1600 Penn’ ★★1/2

8:30 to 9 p.m. Thursdays on WMAQ-Channel 5

Updated: February 11, 2013 6:57AM

PASADENA, Calif. — You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover or a TV show by its title.

But when I heard about NBC’s new comedy “1600 Penn,” I immediately assumed I wouldn’t like it. A comedy about a fictional First Family didn’t seem, well, all that funny.

I changed my mind after a few episodes, largely thanks to the character I thought I would like the least: the president’s slacker son, Skip Gilchrist, played with man-child perfection by Broadway’s “Book of Mormon” star Josh Gad.

After seven years in college and a campus prank gone bad, Skip gets exiled to the White House to live under the watchful eye of his family, which includes a young brother and two sisters, as well as his stepmom (Jenna Elfman, “Dharma & Greg”) and his dad, President Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, who also portrayed the leader of the free world in “Independence Day.”)

“Josh is so good at playing the lovable idiot but giving it dimension so that, as the show goes on, you realize that Skip’s character has a really special wisdom to share,” said Jason Winer, one of the show’s writers and producers. “He’s in touch with his emotions in a way that Bill’s character is not, and he has something to teach to this family and to his father. They’re kind of like an emotional odd couple at the heart of the show.”

Despite the title, “1600 Penn” is more a family comedy, even though co-creator Jon Lovett spent three years as a speechwriter for President Barack Obama and has “a lot of stories about the absurdity of Washington.”

“I base my character on Malia, by the way,” Gad joked at a recent TV critics’ gathering.

In the pilot, the president’s reliable, responsible daughter Becca (Martha MacIsaac) finds out she’s going to be a mom after an uncharacteristic one-night stand. She’d been acting as a surrogate mom of sorts after the president’s first wife passed away.

Elfman shines as a savvy trophy wife with a soul, a campaign strategist who can help put her husband in the Oval Office but has a much trickier time figuring out how to be a stepmother.

“You’ll start to see this family become a very fun, cohesive unit that has their foibles but is absolutely in love with each other and absolutely teaching each other lessons week after week,” Gad said.

NBC debuted a sneak preview of the sitcom last month. It moves to its regular time slot Thursday and is celebrating by giving away free red velvet cupcakes from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Sprinkles, 50 E. Walton.

“1600 Penn” keeps with the network’s new mission to attract audiences with broad comedies as opposed to niche shows like “Community.”

It’s not ground-breaking or cutting-edge, and it’s by no means the funniest show on TV. But it has the potential to get more lovable with time if viewers vote to give it a chance.

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